Whiskey Tango Foxtrot makes perfect sense—under certain conditions. It is undoubtedly the combination of directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa’s (Crazy, Stupid Love) rom-com orientation, writer Robert Carlock’s (30 Rock; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) socially-aware comedic sense, and Tina Fey’s witty, charming humor. It is not a war drama, but rather a comedic look into the difficulties of living in a new place and culture, with the war in Afghanistan as its backdrop.
WTF catalogues the adventures of Kim Barker (Tina Fey), a bold reporter with a propensity for swearing and ignoring rules, after she quits her mundane desk job as a broadcast news scriptwriter to take a war beat job in Afghanistan. There, she meets an intrepid female war reporter, Tanya (Margot Robbie), her Afghan tour guide turned best friend, Fahim (Christopher Abbott), and falls in love with Iain (Martin Freeman), the overconfident Irish freelance photographer (who happens to have a big heart—surprise!). Throughout her five years in Afghanistan, Kim is swept up into a world of military affairs, war politics, cultural misunderstandings, and crazy nights out with her new foreign-correspondent friends.
Tina Fey’s witty, intelligent humor is a good entry point into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s mixed genre. She is a strong female lead, and, while the recurring “Fours become tens in Afghanistan” joke about Fey’s appearance—a common source of Fey’s own jokes and humor—becomes repetitive quickly, she does a wonderful job of portraying Barker as a thoughtful and strong-willed female protagonist. Kim must deal with blatant sexism and obstacles in her journalistic endeavors, and she does so with great force and intelligence. She shines in comparison to the other characters, who fall a bit flat. Tanya fills the stereotypical party girl role, albeit in a foreign correspondent’s shoes. Fahim’s character is well-developed, and shows a man torn between his friendship with Kim and his obligations to his family. Iain is at first a slimy character but grows endearing over the course of the film. His relationship with Fey’s character is dynamic and enjoyable to watch. Nevertheless, Fey’s character is the most engaging in the film.
Rather than a coherent plot with clear rising and falling action, WTF presents a collection of adventures and journalistic achievements, which it tries to link together using conventional romance and adventure storylines. The plot itself is not bad, but I found that the film’s prescribed culminating moments failed to excite. The storyline definitely benefits from Fey’s acting, though, as she gets to throw her witty punchlines out in a variety of amusing cultural and social situations.
It’s fair to be wary of the “white woman goes to foreign place and is heroic” narrative that could have played out with WTF, especially with its more comedic approach. And while this narrative takes the stage on occasion—it is centered around a white female journalist entering a war zone, after all—for the most part the film calls itself out when it gets falsely sentimental. There is a wonderful scene in which Kim explains her reasons for moving to Afghanistan, and she speaks of her life-changing realization made while on a spin bike at the gym. Without missing a beat, her friend chimes in with a comment equivalent to “that was the whitest thing I’ve ever heard”; the film rarely misses a beat with these self-aware moments. Its humor is a delicate thing, and hits only a few unfortunate bumps along the way.
Furthermore, on the note of humor and subject matter, the film could have been more culturally attentive. A few of the Afghan jokes fall short, and some of the dialogue, particularly the translation scenes between Kim and her interviewees, is a bit far-fetched. The film most disappoints, though, with its flat portrayal of Afghan culture: hijabs are bad, every Afghan man is overtly sexist, and in every scene where there is a crowd of Afghans, they are all yelling in an untranslated foreign language and shoving the foreigners around violently. The sympathetic Afghan character, even, is played by an American.
Overall, though, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an entertaining film for two reasons: Fey’s great performance and the underlying true narrative beneath it. I would imagine that, complimented with a readthrough of Kim Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle, the film would be complete. On its own, however, it falls just short of being a deep look at foreign journalism. As a comedy, though, the film meets and occasionally surpasses expectations; despite the solemn background of war, comedy maintains its stage presence, with Tina Fey standing in the spotlight. Whiskey’s lighter moments entertain, but its portrayal of a culture in war does not go down quite as smooth.